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BACK TO BASICS: Writing for Search Engines

by Susan Esparza, December 2006

Much of the time when we take on a new client, one of our recommendations is that they increase the amount of unique, keyword-targeted, text content on their site. We generally recommend having at least 250 words of content per page, a number that continues to grow as the years go by. Ten years ago our minimum was 75 words. However, as competition on the Web becomes greater, the barrier to entry gets higher as well. Search engines are seeking even more expert content as a way to determine the most relevant sites for a particular keyword.

Conversely, there is no maximum number of words you can put on any one page so long as you are adding quality content. You'll notice that some BruceClay.com pages are over 5000 words. However, before you go after a strategy of building lengthy pages, remember that you want to build depth of content in your site. It's not about saying everything you have to say on one page. While it is possible to rank for a one page site, it is very difficult. It is much easier to establish a site wide theme, supported by depth of content and good internal linking.

Pages should be structured to address customer questions or product information as they become relevant. This can seem to be a daunting task for many people, but it's actually quite manageable as long as you start your copywriting project off in the right direction.

Search engines want to be treated like any other visitor to your site, but while they are coming closer to the ability to mimic human judgment, they're not there yet. Search engines can still have trouble trying to accurately define what a page is about if the content is written in anything but a clear and well-defined style.

To understand what you should be writing, you first need to understand a little bit about the history of the search engines. The first search engines were set up for the people who were using the Internet at the time. Because the population of the early Web was largely researchers, scientists and educators, the focus of search engines was to bring back pages that fit the thesis model. This model persists today in the way Web pages are written: a title, description and some keywords that help define what the focus of the paper or page is.

In order to write effective pages to support your search engine optimization goals there are a few guidelines you should keep in mind. Assuming that you have generated a solid keyword list (See our article Five Steps to Effective SEO Keyword Research), and have assigned the words to pages, your next step should be to brainstorm the best way to represent the keywords in an informative way.

Brainstorming works best if you throw out all your filters. Don't critique any of your ideas, just write them down. The idea is to get out everything--great ideas and garbage alike. At this stage, no idea is too stupid. You can narrow it down later.

If you are writing content for your own Web site your first response might be to feel frustrated. What on earth are you going to write about? Everyone knows everything that you could possibly tell them and you're not a writer anyway. But that's just the thing, they don't and you are.

Let's pretend that your business is selling cowboy boots. Brainstorm everything you can think of that relates to cowboy boots, even if it's only somewhat related. Once you have all your ideas down, pick a few of the best. For example, you'll want to focus a section of your site on the keyword "buy cowboy boots". Everyone, you think, knows about how to buy boots. It's just a matter of finding the right fit and style. You don't need to explain it to your site's visitors. But it's one of your keywords so you sit down and simply write all the obvious information.

You are an expert in your area. Of course you know how to check the fit of your boots and which styles will work best for which people. It's obvious to you that your jeans should be tucked inside your boots if you're working outside and that you should take certain steps to care for your boots. But for most people, that's not the case. That's why they're coming to your site in the first place. Your expertise is a valuable resource for the development of content. Explaining something that is obvious to you is probably the best way to introduce new customers to your products.

When I write my first draft, I like to keep the keywords that I want to incorporate on the page in mind. I'll tape them to my monitor or put them at the very top of the document. However, I don't worry about densities or forcing them in. If it doesn't sound natural to use the keyword, I don't use it. The first draft is just to get the information out. Use your keywords as a guide for the content.

Once you have a first draft, take a look at the tone of your piece. Are you writing to the right audience? Is your content engaging and informative? Does your content solve a problem or help the customer make a decision? If you're in a highly technical area where your customer isn't likely to know enough to ask intelligent questions, have you educated them enough to feel comfortable?

Revise your draft with these ideas in mind. Knowing your audience means putting in the kinds of words that they will be looking for, the same kinds of words that will help them understand what the best choice of products will be for them.

After your next draft, the best thing to do is ask someone else to read it over for you. The best person for this task is someone who fits the profile of a site visitor. Have them read it to see if it answers their questions in an easy to understand way. If not, revise the content to meet their understanding.

Once you have a final draft, incorporate your final product into the destination page and use the SEOToolSet's KDA or any other page rating tool to determine the strength of the document. Tweak it if necessary. Keep in mind what your linking strategies will be and how the content will support the Web site theme as a whole.

The final thing to remember about writing for search engines is that there is no magical formula for writing the perfect copy. It takes work and attention to detail to meet the needs of both the search engines and your human visitors. The best thing to do is start writing and go from there.